First Impressions from Iraqi Kurdistan

ERBIL — My first night in Kurdistan was spent at the Erbil International Hotel, but locally known as “The Sheraton.” I believe the Sheraton left in 1991, but it will forever hold the name. The lounge/restaurant/bar area is a place where you might see journalists, businessmen, and Kurdish officials. The hotel is surrounded by bomb blast walls and has a high level of security surrounding the area. Cars line up at a security checkpoint at the entrance of the “compound” to check for bombs. At the entrance into the hotel lobby, all bags are checked and you are searched, regardless of your nationality. The procedures at the hotel will either make you feel safe, or it could have the opposite effect.

After being picked up at the airport by the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, my arrival at the Sheraton was my first experience in Kurdistan. While rather nice, it is by far the most expensive hotel in Erbil, at about $250 per night. I wasn’t able to find another hotel above $100. In fact, I have heard you can find several for less than $10 a night. Early this afternoon, I found one downtown Erbil near the Citadel for $50 per night called Kotri Salam (“Peace Pigeon” in Kurdish). The one major benefit is wireless in the rooms. The Sheraton had wireless, but they charge $6 per hour. Internet was difficult to find but it is necessary for what I’m doing here, so I was glad to find a place that had internet even in the rooms. I paid for one night at Kotri Salam but I will probably end up staying here until I leave Erbil next Friday, March 19.

After getting settled in at the Sheraton yesterday afternoon, I decided to walk toward the center of the city a mile or two away. The Sheraton isn’t too far from the central part of Erbil, but it is slightly removed from the surrounding areas. Initially, the level of security at the hotel made me a bit hesitant about what might be beyond the walls, but I was quickly reassured once I made my way toward the bustling bazaar area near the Citadel. I successfully achieved my primary goal which was to purchase a local cell phone. After roaming around downtown Erbil for a few hours, I managed to find my way back to the hotel in one piece.

Prior to the trip, I was slightly worried about the language barrier. All of the people I will be interviewing speak English, but I was hoping I wouldn’t have too much trouble communicating with normal Kurds. Needless to say, I have been pleasantly surprised by how many Kurds actually do speak Arabic, or at least have a working knowledge of it. Despite some difficulties, communicating hasn’t been too difficult. But that could also be a testament to the Kurdish people who are all very welcoming and accommodating. Few seem to speak much English, so I primarily have to get around with Arabic. In general, Kurds in Erbil rarely communicate with Iraqi Arabs so they often don’t speak much Arabic. Some find it entertaining to get to use their Arabic with an American.

The remainder of my first evening was spent in the lounge area of the Sheraton talking with a number of different people. Initially, I was to meet with a Dutch journalist currently based in Erbil. After he arrived, two Kurdish guys who are students at the Kurdistan University of Hawler (Erbil) also ended up showing up. Both of the Kurds come from influential Kurdish families so it was interesting to hear their perspective on various Iraqi/Kurdish issues. One is working on a project with the Wall Street Journal on economic development in Kurdistan and the other is the son of a leader of one of the Kurdish Islamic political parties. Two French guys also joined the group. They are spending a year in Kurdistan. The one is completing a year of his Masters work in sociology in Kurdistan and the other is doing freelance photography. With the help of countless cups of chai (hot tea), we spent more than six hours discussing Iraqi and Kurdish politics, and little more. In the U.S. I often feel like I am imposing on friends when I try to talk about politics, but no imposing was necessary in this situation. It is also strikingly different from my experience in Syria where I was frustrated that it was nearly impossible to discuss Syrian domestic politics with locals.

While some suggest that Kurdistan is a closed society with two major political factions in control, it is actually fairly open. A Kurdish Christian man named Kemal told me today that in Iraqi Kurdistan, you are “free to speak, criticize, and ask questions…..Kurds love democracy.”  Kurds clearly have much to say about Iraqi politics and it is easy to sense a strong relief after years of oppression during the days of Saddam. “Today we can say anything we want about Saddam. It feels very, very, very good,” Kemal said. Kemal is the owner of a liquor store in a predominantly Christian area on the outskirts of Erbil called Ainkawa. His store was filled with American beer and liquor, most of which were priced below what they would cost in the U.S. Hopefully I get the opportunity to write more on Ainkawa in a future post.

Politics clearly play a very important role in Kurdish society. The recent parliamentary elections increases the politicization, but its effects are quite visible. The son of the Kurdish political leader attributed the significant politicization among Kurds to a variety of different reasons but provided the example that if you want to open a business or even transfer universities, you need political party backing. Politics prevail in Kurdistan.

One major question that friends and family will likely wonder is how safe I feel here. First off, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq prides itself on its security. Kurds look down on the security situation to the south and are quick to mention that it is safe in Erbil, where the Kurdish peshmerga maintains control. On a personal level, I do feel safe. Kurds are extremely friendly, welcoming, and hospitable. The people particularly like Americans. They often wonder what I am doing here and they are intrigued that a young American came here to complete university research. A few have asked if I am a soldier, presumably on vacation from in and around Baghdad. Other than at the Sheraton, I still haven’t run into another foreigner.

Since 2003, Erbil itself has seen little violence. There were two major bombings in 2004 and 2005, with scattered violence since then. With the presence of the Kurdish peshmerga and the population being nearly all Kurdish, much of the violence that could occur in a place like Erbil has to do with Kurdish politics and political maneuvering between the various political factions. While the two main Kurdish political groups, the PUK and the KDP, have been united since 2003, the two sides were involved in the Kurdish Civil War between 1994 and 1998.

As a whole though, Kurdistan is relatively safe, especially compared to the rest of the country. While it is safe and occasionally easy to forget that you are in Iraq, it is also important to keep in mind that it is still Iraq. While safe in Erbil, not too far from here are some of the most dangerous places in Iraq today, along the area of disputed territories between Kurds and Arabs. Mosul is about 50 miles to the east of Erbil and Kirkuk is 60 miles to the south. Baghdad is about 200 miles to the south. Erbil and the rest of Kurdistan are in a dangerous neighborhood, but it has been largely successful in maintaining security since the Iraq War began in 2003. This truly is “the other Iraq” that more American investors and regular citizens should be aware of.

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3 Responses to “First Impressions from Iraqi Kurdistan”

  1. The Other Iraq in Kurdistan Newspapers « The Other Iraq Says:

    […] was The Land of Purple Fingers which described the post-election scene in Erbil. The second was First Impressions from Kurdistan. This was written on March 12, my first full day in […]

  2. The Other Iraq in Kurdistan Newspapers « The Mezze – المزة Says:

    […] is The Land of Purple Fingers, which describes the post-election scene in Erbil. The second is First Impressions from Kurdistan, which was written on March 12, my first full day […]

  3. chrisdebruyn Says:

    I am also living in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Sulaimania, teaching English and photography. It’s nice to see another person who is spreading his experience about ‘the other iraq’. Keep it up.

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